We arrived at Mattole Beach early in the evening. The trailhead has a scattering of car campsites, which we were eager to leave behind. We donned our backpacks, hit the trail, and promptly lost ourselves in the vast beauty of the coast. It feels somehow primal; the convergence of sea and land on this solitary, rugged section of the Northern California coastline. There are no roads on this section of the coast–the terrain is too rugged. There is no cell phone coverage. And we saw very few people. We were disconnected from the modern world, and reconnecting to the land, the sea and ourselves.
I breathed in deeply, the moist, salty air filling my nostrils and renewing my energy with each step. We were off the grid in the best way possible. We were on the Lost Coast Trail.
The Lost Coast is so named because this section of this section of land was too steep and rugged to build a road. Big Sur was tamed by Highway 1, but not the Lost Coast. Highway 1 veers inland 20 miles around this remote section of coastline. There are no roads or cars. Just getting to the trailhead is a journey in itself.
Time: 3-4 days
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous multi-day
Elevation gain: 50 ft
When to go: Year-round
We hiked the Lost Coast Trail over four days and three nights — a comfortable pace that allowed flexibility in our hiking schedule to accommodate the high tides. We started with a rough itinerary, but with the exception of the third night, changed every planned camp location. Have a plan, but plan to be flexible. The Lost Coast demands it.
An Overview of the Lost Coast Trail
The first day on the trail we started out about 5:30 PM, and hiked an easy 5-1/2 miles. Along the way, we stopped by the beautiful and historic Punta Gorda Lighthouse. The lighthouse was built in 1910 after numerous fatal shipwrecks off the coast, and was in operation until 1961, when it was replaced by more advanced navigation technology. There used to be a number of beautiful cottages and out buildings, but these were tragically burned down by the forest service in the early ’70s. Today, only the concrete structures of the lighthouse and the fuel house remain.
The trail, such as it is, mainly involves following the coastline. The terrain often is soft sand that slows down your pace to a slog, or rocks that force you to carefully choose each step. There are two large flats along the route that offer solid ground–a welcome respite from the rocks, sand and gravel.
Water is never far away. Even in a dry year like this, we met sources of fresh water every mile or less along the trail — from small rivulets to full-fledged creeks.
Note: in storms and during the rainy season, these creeks can swell to waist-high depth and crossing can be treacherous.
Where is the Lost Coast?
The Lost Coast Trail in the King Range National Conservation Area is about five hours north of San Francisco. To get to Shelter Cove, take the Garberville exit off Highway 101, heading west on Shelter Cove Road. Right right on Beach Road, and continue about a mile to the Black Sands Beach parking lot. Get Google Maps directions to the Black Sands Beach trailhead.
To reach Mattole Beach on the north end of the Lost Coast, take Lighthouse Road west from Petrolia, all the way to the end. Get Google Maps directions to the Mattole Trailhead.
Note that the drive to either of these trailheads takes patience. It can take 1-1/2 hours to drive from the 101 to Shelter Cove, and the road can be harrowing. It’s all part of the adventure.
The Lost Coast Trail Map
Lost Coast Trail Tips
- Bear canisters are required throughout the King Range National Conservation Area. While we didn’t see any signs of bears, two guys we shared the shuttle with had seen bear tracks on the beach on their last day of the trip. Yes, there are bears on the Lost Coast. Fortunately, you can rent canisters from the ranger station for $5 per canister, per trip at these three locations.
- Where to go when Nature calls… This one blew me away, but the rule on the Lost Coast Trail is to dig a hole on the beach below the high tide mark and make your deposit right there. Everywhere else I’ve ever hiked the rules typically have you do this well away from water, but in this case, the rangers want you to do it in the ocean. In fact, its right on the permit.
- Permits are required but they are free, there is no quota, and you can self-issue a permit at the trailhead*. You are asked to provide your name, rough itinerary, number in your group and agree to follow the rules listed on the permit.
- Rangers will check and fine for violations. Violations include not carrying a bear canister, not carrying a permit, or not following the rules regarding campfires. Read the rules, and follow them. We met a ranger on our fourth day, and he checked our permit and canister and actually quizzed us to make sure we read the rules.
- Which direction to hike? North or South? This one is easy. Hike from north to south. The prevailing winds will be at your back. Start at Mattole Beach and head south to Shelter Cove.
The new overnight wilderness permit system will limit the number of people entering the King Range Wilderness and backcountry zone for overnight use to 60 entries per day during the peak season of May 15-Sept. 15, and 30 entries per day during the non-peak season of Sept. 16-May 14.
Starting Jan. 9, 2017, King Range visitors can go to www.recreation.gov to book their overnight permits. They can also make reservations by visiting the BLM Arcata Field Office in Arcata or the King Range office in Whitethorn. Reservations will cost $6 per permit. The current backcountry permit system, with self-registration at trailheads, will remain in place until Jan. 9th.
Lost Coast Resources
- Getting to the trailhead is a challenge in itself. You could plan a yo-yo (out-and-back) trip, but that turns it into a challenging 50 mile hike. Most people plan to take a shuttle. There are two shuttle companies that serve the area: Lost Coast Shuttle and Lost Coast Adventures. We used Lost Coast shuttle and were super-pleased with the service. We drove to the Black Sands Beach trailhead on the south end of the trail in Shelter Cove, where the shuttle met us and drove us up and around to the north end of the trail — a windy hour and a half drive. The benefit to this approach is that when you get to the end of the trail, your car is waiting for you, rather than you waiting for the shuttle. The shuttle is pricey, but understandably so since each round trip takes about four hours total. Keep in mind that the more in your group, the lower the overall cost of the shuttle–as long as your group fits in one shuttle.
- GPS user? Download our Lost Coast GPX file.
- Download the King Range Wilderness Map (8.5 MB PDF)
- Monthly weather averages. Note: it gets wet here during much of the year.
Lost Coast Weather Forecast
Should you hike the Lost Coast Trail?
Follow the links below for my day-by-day trip report and guide for our Lost Coast backpacking trip. I highly recommend this trail to anyone with a sense of adventure and a love of rugged wilderness.
- Day 1: Mattole Beach to Sea Lion Gulch
- Day 2: Sea Lion Gulch to Spanish Flat
- Day 3: Spanish Flat to Miller Flat
- Day 4: Miller Flat to Shelter Cove
If you’ve got questions about the Lost Coast Trail, let me know in the comments below.